The State of Appalachia Conference 2018 will meet at Pipestem Resort State Park in West Virginia on March 23rd and 24th. (Photo of Bluestone Gorge in Pipestem park. Used under the CC BY 2.0 license.)

More than 50 years after Christian denominations began a new type of mission work in Appalachia, leaders are continuing the conversation about the connection between religion and social justice in the mountains. 

The State of Appalachia Conference 2018 will meet at Pipestem Resort State Park in West Virginia on March 23rd and 24th.   

“We’re hoping to attract a wide diversity of people, particularly from faith communities and social justice organizations, but really anyone who is interested in Appalachia is invited to come,” said the Rev. Jeff Allen, director of the West Virginia Council of Churches and a contributing leader for the conference.  

This is the second annual State of Appalachia Conference organized for leaders of faith communities and social justice organizations to connect and learn what each other are doing in their Appalachian communities. Allen said that there will be speakers and workshops offered covering major themes of “spirituality, future of the local church and just transition.” Just transition is a combination of economic and environmental justice concerns for regions of Appalachia where the coal industry is on the wane.   

Several of the conference organizers are former leaders from the Commission on Religion in Appalachia (CORA), an important and influential ecumenical organization that formed in 1965 and operated until 2006. CORA’s story is a rich and wide-ranging 40-year narrative of service and advocacy in Appalachia. Funds from churches and faith communities throughout the country supported CORA’s ability to place resources with people “on the ground.” These local leaders worked in schools, advocated for civil rights, supported labor unions in coal country, protested mountaintop removal, raised awareness about “black lung” and other Appalachian health concerns and supported economic development in local communities.  

CORA’s leaders recruited local people to do the hands-on work, but the group was governed in part by religious leaders from American centers of influence and resources, who were formed in seminary academic cultures. This created a unique environment in which the concept of “mission work” could be understood from new perspectives. 

Today many people are suspicious of the concept of missionary work. The whole idea seems condescending and arrogant to some. In our post-modern world, religious commitment is confined to the category of personal opinion. So people find it hard to understand why others won’t keep their personal opinions to themselves. Others note that the long history of Christian missionary work has been tainted with a heavy handed Western cultural triumphalism. Historically, missions from Rome to Celtic Britain, from England to India and from the United States to Africa and Asia may have had good intentions but they also did great damage in failing to see the unique value and gifts of the more marginal cultures they were trying to help. It is impossible to ignore this problem, which is not only historical but is intrinsic to any group of people with more power, wealth and resources trying to help another group with less.   

I am no expert in missiology. I am simply a pastor in Appalachia who has seen many a mission group come to the mountains from the cities. So I am sensitive to people’s concerns about missionary minded folks who sometimes make assumptions about people with fewer resources that they are trying to help. Here is what I have observed. People who come doggedly focused on fixing the spiritual, economic or cultural problems of Appalachia usually come away frustrated. Yet people who come seeking to share and learn, while being open to human connection with people from a different culture always come away enriched. And in this sense, don’t we need more mission minded people today who are willing and courageous enough to learn, share and find human connection with others from different geographical, racial, class and cultural experiences? It is rare today. We are often scared to do it. It is easier to stay in the comfort of our isolated, homogeneous cultural bubbles. 

So I am grateful for the religious and non-profit leaders who will gather for the State of Appalachia Conference who are seeking yet again to build these important human connections in Appalachia. Many things have changed since 1965 when CORA started its missionary efforts in Appalachia. The folks who will gather at the State of Appalachia Conference will mostly be coming from different parts of Appalachia. The distance they travel will be less geographical than the first generation of CORA leadership. The distance to travel today is more the distance between peoples of different races and classes. All of us are better off for the efforts of those who are willing to make this journey. 

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes. 

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